Boston guard Isaiah Thomas better be ready for ‘physical’ play

Jimmy Butler doesn’t know when, but he knows it’s coming. At some point in the Bulls’ first-round Eastern Conference playoff series, which starts Sunday in Boston, coach Fred Hoiberg will give him the nod to guard the Celtics’ biggest scoring threat, point guard Isaiah Thomas.

And then it’s on.

Butler’s looking forward to it.

“Especially what he’s done this year for that team,” Butler said after practice Friday. “I’m going to make it tough for him — for anybody I’m guarding. But not just me. It’s going to be a team effort. I’m going to get beat at times, and I’m going to need guys to be there. But I look forward to that challenge. I want that.”

It’s simple math. Thomas, who’s 5-9, is the Celtics’ top scorer with 28.9 points per game, as well as their best finisher, averaging 9.8 points in the fourth quarter. Butler, who’s 6-7, is the Bulls’ best defender.

What can Thomas expect?

“I’m a physical player, so that’s all that I know,” Butler said. “He’s a quick little guy. But I’m not slow, either, so I can keep up with a lot of them. But, yeah, be physical. That’s how I play defense anyway. How many fouls do I get? Six? I get six fouls, so I think I’ll be all right.”

Asked if it’s harder to guard smaller players, Butler said he doesn’t discriminate. His goal is to shut down anyone he’s guarding.

“First of all, I’m 6-7 ¾ — don’t ever forget that,” he said, correcting his listed height. “I mean, however tall [Thomas] is, he’s been that height for a long time now, so he’s mastered it . . . 5-8, 6-8, whatever he is, the guy knows how to put the ball in the basket. You’ve got to guard whoever, whether they’re 5-8 or 6-8. Or 6-7 ¾.”

Hoiberg, without going into details of his game plan, acknowledged the Bulls have discussed a certain time of the game when Butler would move to Thomas. And if Thomas gets hot early, it’s all subject to change, Hoiberg said.

“Obviously you have to adjust if things are going in the wrong direction, but we do have a plan on how we’re going to try to slow [Thomas] down a little bit, which is obviously difficult to do with the [No. 3] scorer in the NBA this year,” Hoiberg said. “We need to understand it’s a team problem. It’s not just the guy guarding him. It’s not just an individual assignment.”

Maybe so, but Butler seems to see it that way. If he can eliminate Thomas as a threat, the Celtics’ lack of star power will be tested in the best-of-seven series.

“Nobody is backing down from anybody on our side, and I’m sure they feel the same way on their side,” Butler said. “So whoever is locked in on guarding him, guarding Jae [Crowder], guarding whoever it may be, like I always say, you win your matchup, you win the game.”

Follow me on Twitter @suntimes_hoops.

Email: jcowley@suntimes.com

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